More than 30 years ago, a few of us tried out an idea that we had been thinking about for a while.
We knew that Tucson consisted of many smaller communities held together by ties of ethnicity, occupation, religion and other forces, and that many of these communities had their own traditional ways of creating beauty.
Wouldn’t it be great to bring all these different kinds of beauty together at one time and place for all Tucsonans to enjoy? And so Tucson Meet Yourself was born and took place for the first time in October 1974. Our sponsor was a new organization in town called the Cultural Exchange Council.
Thirty-three years later, the festival, still sponsored by the same group, has grown in size and complexity, but it is still dedicated to the same ideas: presenting the living traditional arts of southern Arizona’s folk and ethnic communities as accurately and respectfully as possible.
And that is really all we do – and I think, if you visit our festival in downtown El Presidio Park over the weekend of Oct. 13-15, you’ll agree it’s enough.
Scattered around the park will be booths selling traditional foods, operated by members of nonprofit ethnic organizations like the Club Costa Rica, the Lao Student Club and the Danish Club.
There should be at least 29 booths selling food from more than 21 separate ethnic traditions. New this year will be Caribbean and Jamaican groups, with Afghans hopefully returning after a brief absence.
There will be two stages running for the full length of the festival, and two smaller, tented stages operating during daylight hours only. We’ll be presenting a bewildering array of traditional folk and ethnic music and dance.
Suffice it to say that the program begins Friday evening with an old-time Western band and ends Sunday afternoon with a Tohono O’odham circle dance, with gospel singing, old-time fiddling, and Greek, Swedish and American Indian dancing in between.
New to the festival this year will be Chinese musicians and a Palestinian dance group. A Food and Culture Pavilion will feature demonstrations and discussions of many different kinds of traditional foods, including discussion by various groups who grow their own food here in the desert.
You’ll learn about traditional Tohono O’odham crops, for instance, get some notion of what firehouse cooking is all about and learn the rules for Danish open-faced sandwiches.
Church Street will be blocked off once again, with a tented Library Stage on its east side where informal music and dance presentations and workshops are featured during daylight hours.
Totally new to the festival this year is “Meet the Street.” This will feature a lowrider display, Tucson-style street vendors selling such local foods as regular and Sonoran-style hot dogs, Mexican paletas (ice cream bars), and raspados or snow cones.
You can even learn the local name for the latter, which doesn’t seem to be used anywhere else – cimarronas – which means “mountain sheep” in regular Spanish! There will be an area for kids’ street games like hopscotch, jacks and even jump-rope. And here, too, we should have a few surprises.
Finally, again during daylight hours, we’ll have the usual Tucson Meet Yourself Folk Arts area. Here is where you can visit with folks who make Ukrainian Easter eggs, learn how to do Mexican and Polish paper cutting, try your hand at paper flowers and experience a wonderful variety of art and craft forms that flourish among specific communities here on the desert.
Even though many of the specially invited artists are professionals, this is not really a sales area. Rather, it is something more rare and precious – an opportunity for you to learn something about the “hows” and even the “whys” of these different traditional ways of creating beauty.
The best part of Tucson Meet Yourself is that it is free to the public. This festival represents a solid year of learning, research and hard work on the part of a totally volunteer staff.
Why do we do it? First of all, because it’s a lot of fun. Second, we are convinced that by introducing different kinds of Tucsonans to one another, we make it easier for us to respect and enjoy one another’s contributions to our community.
And finally, but perhaps most important (and I’m speaking for myself here), because we love this place.
So come on by El Presidio Park, downtown between City Hall and the old county courthouse, over the weekend of Oct. 13-15. Meet some old friends, and perhaps some folks you never knew existed here in southern Arizona.
Learn why a lot of folks call our festival “Tucson Eat Yourself.” And if the bug bites you, sign up and help us out as a festival volunteer or even get involved on a year-round basis. There’s always room for more!
Jim Griffith is co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself.